Carriage House and Mark Steuer’s low-country boil
We’re beyond the point where chefs have to hail from the same region as their food, right? Matthias Merges of the Japanese standout Yusho is a New Jersey native. Rick Bayless comes from Oklahoma City. Ryan Poli, who produces some of the city’s most exciting regional Spanish food at Tavernita, grew up in Garfield Ridge. There’s no reason a smart individual can’t visit a far-off land and learn how to interpret its cuisine in an honest and delicious way. “Sometimes,” says Poli, “you’re so busy enjoying your meal that you don’t care to ask where the chef is from.”
Why, then, must American Southern food be cooked by a Southerner?
Whenever a new restaurant promises down-home country cooking, we wrinkle our cynical brows until we learn that the chef has family going back four generations in Tupelo. Only then are we convinced that we’re not going to get some kind of ridiculous deep-fried gravy fest or precious cooking school wankery that any genuine Southerner would be embarrassed to find on the plate.
I’m not sure why this is so, other than the fact that true Southern food is based on oral tradition (i.e., Grandma’s old recipes). But so are most great cuisines. A more likely explanation is that no one understands the South but Southerners. We Yankees, perpetually tone-deaf to the region’s spirit and tradition, often have a hard time channeling that complexity into the food.
Mark Steuer (Bedford, HotChocolate), the 31-year-old chef/partner at Carriage House, knows low-country cooking—the simple seafood, stews, and grits of the South’s coastal plains—because he is a low-country boy. “We had a dock in my backyard,” says Steuer, who grew up in Johns Island, South Carolina, along the Stono River. “My dad and I used to put out crab traps and catch shrimp off the dock. We did all kinds of things with them: put them in a boil, cooked and chilled them for shrimp cocktail, or just grilled them, shell on, right out of the water.” Was this lifted directly from the screenplay of Forrest Gump?
But replicating a romantic experience in a professional kitchen 900 miles away, without watering it down or mucking it up, takes attention to detail. And Carriage House gets it right. The 120-seat space, with restored window shutters, communal tables made of reclaimed lumber, and shelf of cookbooks, is folksy without devolving into cheesy Americana kitsch. Skeletal crab-basket light fixtures and white fans dangle from the high ceiling, and the floor is shiny blue concrete. In between is louder than a cannon shot.
The confident food emerging from the open kitchen, much of which comes from dayboat fishermen in Charleston, South Carolina, doesn’t need to yell to be heard. Little nibbles produce big flavors, like skillet cornbread soaked with apricot jam and foie gras butter or crisp fried green tomatoes with pickled shrimp and creamed red peas. The straightforward she-crab soup lives in a delicious no man’s land between a chowder and a bisque, providing a substantial pool for crab salad, a buttermilk cracker, and a thickening sherry gastrique. And if you dare to do fried chicken these days, you can’t half-ass it: CH coats a plate with local honey, then places an impeccably crisp boneless chicken thigh on top with a stacked spiral of bread-and-butter pickles and gives you a bottle of homemade sweet potato hot sauce. Tremendous.
Steuer divides his menu into traditional and reimagined dishes, a canny gambit that gives the kitchen room to play without purists crying foul. “Southern food can be delicate and clean,” says Steuer. “I wanted to show that we could modernize a dish without losing any of the tradition or flavor.”
When he diverges from the usual path, you trust that he’s got a damn good reason. The best example is the modestly named pork and beans, a precise but hearty triumph of smoky ham hock draped with a soft egg over field bean succotash and okra pickles and topped by Creole mustard vinaigrette. The man can get away with, say, stuffing quail with a black pepper dumpling because he has proved his bona fides elsewhere.
Carriage House’s willingness to experiment elevates familiar flavors into something transcendent. People tend to be prickly about the rules for “proper grits,” which generally don’t include oyster mushrooms or grilled chicory—not to mention a truffle vinaigrette that soaks right into a bouncy 90-minute egg topped with tangy Thomasville tomme cow’s milk cheese. But as Homer Simpson might say, it’s sacrilicious.
Ostensibly we’re talking about sharing plates here. But the very language of Southern food implies communal eating: Clam boil. Oyster roast. Picnic board. Steuer’s low-country boil, a dish reportedly created by a National Guardsman who needed to feed a whole troop, is a giant pot of tomatoey crab seasoning juice brimming with head-on Carolina shrimp, clams, peppery Creole rabbit sausage, corn on the cob, and red potatoes. I defy you to split it with friends and not emerge happier for it. When the waiter sees you soaking up the juice with Pullman bread, he will bring you more buttery slices. That’s the kind of place Carriage House is: generous and attentive. In fact, the staff may be the nicest in Chicago, charming in a way that makes you want to work on your own manners.
If there are any off notes, other than the blistering noise, it’s that Steuer occasionally tries to do too much, as in a lovely buttermilk-marinated rib eye with scattershot sides of smoked salt, blue cheese, marinated heirloom tomatoes, grilled chicory, cornbread croutons, and hot pepper vinegar. And desserts, which ought to be like a good-night kiss, are more of a lukewarm fist bump. Three desultory choices are lowlighted by an off-putting pear cobbler with sorghum sauce and mysterious gray gelatin slivers. A restaurant this promising can do better. The audacious cocktail program mines classic recipes, like the Chartreuse-stoked Amber Dream, and gets all mixologisty with others, as in a gin Gibson that vacuum-seals vermouth inside pearl onions.
Steuer quickly debunks my theory about Southern food. “You don’t have to be from the South,” he says. “But you have to understand the simplicity of the food. If you try to add too many flavors, the end result is muddled.”
Carriage House captures the brawn, the nuance, and the flavors of the low-country South—whether authentic or rebooted—and I adore it. So does Steuer. “I really do love this cuisine,” he says. “It’s allowed me to get the staff really excited about it as well. It trickles down from the top, you know?” Yes, I know.
Photography: Anna Knott